Pennsylvania: School District Encounters Parent Push-Back on Abstinence-Only Speaker

The Warwick School District in south central Pennsylvania was the scene of a controversy this Fall over abstinence-only speaker Pam Stenzel, whom the district invited to address middle- and high-school students at two in-school daytime assemblies, and to address a mixed teen- and-parent audience at a third event in the evening.

District parents were not uniform in welcoming this news. While the district stood fast in support of the divisive performer, it canceled the daytime assemblies in response to some parents’ objections about Stenzel’s factual credibility and her theatrical style.

School officials alerted parents about Stenzel’s planned appearance in a letter that assured them she would “candidly discuss with our students the tough issues of sex and the risks of being sexually active…with insight and humor as she poses a challenge for young people to get the 'abstinence advantage.'"[1]  According to Superintendent April Hershey, the school district would pay Stenzel $3,500 plus travel costs for the lectures. Parents were offered the option of excusing their children from attending.

At a school board meeting that preceded Stenzel’s appearance, four of seven speakers opposed Warwick’s sponsorship of the event.

Laura Gibble, a parent of two Warwick students, expressed her opposition and told the Board she had viewed one of Stenzel’s presentations on DVD. Gibble, who has a master’s degree with an emphasis in human sexuality and has taught abstinence-based programs in schools and churches, described Stenzel’s tone as “harsh and abrasive” and said that Stenzel relied on fear to make the case for abstinence: “(I) actually felt battered by her constant yelling [Gibble said]…But most significantly I am concerned that she distorts, exaggerates and manipulates facts to make her case.”[2]

In contrast with Gibble, Loren Miller told the Board he was “truly perplexed” by such complaints about Stenzel and that “… the fact remains that there is a difference between right and wrong, between good and evil [and] I support the value our children receive when there is clarity and a sharp divide between right and wrong.”[3]

The regional news source Lancaster Online provided coverage of the debate, and weighed in with its own editorial statement praising the parents who spoke out to oppose Stenzel. In the words of its editorial board,

“Pam Stenzel is an entertaining, take-no-prisoners speaker. If she was bringing her wallpaper-stripping rhetoric to a church hall near you, we’d even suggest you buy a ticket, if you’re into that kind of thing. She should not be speaking at a public school. And she should not be getting paid with taxpayer money.”[4]

They went on to emphasize the value of open parent-child communication about sexual issues, noting with irony that,

“Stenzel’s rhetoric undermines the bond between parents and teens —mothers and daughters, especially…In her talk online,  she declares that when a mother takes her daughter to get birth control, the mother has made that girl ‘10 times more likely to contract a disease…This girl could end up sterile or dead,’ she says, sneering, ‘Thanks, mom. Glad you cared.’ This is an appalling and irresponsible message, and the very opposite of pro-family values.”[5]

Journalists for Lancaster Online filed an open records request to get the district to reveal how many parents opted their children out of the school-day assemblies originally planned (answer: 110). The district soon responded with statements posted to its web site, defending its support for Stenzel and implying that critics such as the Lancaster Online editorial board were ‘bullying’ the community and creating an ‘unsafe’ environment:

“On October 15, 2014, a local media source posted a story online and later printed an inflammatory, inaccurate, and biased article absent of critical facts on this event…Warwick School District is grateful to those individuals who were willing to engage in constructive discourse regarding the abstinence message [but] others with differences of opinion used what can only be described as bullying tactics through social media to personally attack individuals…to threaten the continued use of the local media…[and] to create an unsafe environment for our students.”[6]

Assigning blame to the opposition, the district announced that the two daytime assemblies were canceled, and that Stenzel would appear for just one event, to be held in the evening at the Warwick High School Performing Arts Center in Lititz, and would be supported with private funds:

“The administration and board of school directors of the Warwick School District believe that every secondary student should have the opportunity to hear Pam Stenzel’s message, and that every family should have the right to make the decision about whether the message is appropriate.”[7]

Echoing the sentiments of school officials, parent Karen Esbenshade expressed her support for the daytime assemblies in an editorial letter; she criticized those who wanted Stenzel off the school-day schedule and accused them of denying freedom of choice to the school community: “Many students have jobs and other commitments, which, given a week's notice [of the daytime cancellations], cannot be changed…Most students would have preferred to view this presentation among peers, not side by side with their parents.”[8]

The night of the re-scheduled assembly, nearly 500 students and parents turned out for Stenzel’s 75-minute talk. According to one observer, “…the crowd in the auditorium was solidly in Stenzel’s court…They chuckled at her jokes, applauded her conclusions and gave her a rousing standing ovation at the end… ‘Pam Stenzel didn’t lose today [because of the daytime cancellations],’ she told parents ‘Your kids did. And that’s too bad.’”[9]

Invoking (and reinforcing) long-cherished stereotypes of ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ sexual expectations, Stenzel advised males to, “Keep your pants on. And zipped, boys…If you’ve done that, you’re fine. If not, you have to get tested. It’s that simple.” To the females, she said, “Girls, you have forgotten who you are,” and instructed them conclude every date with the following pronouncement: “‘You had the privilege of being with me for 5 hours. You don’t need anything else, I am a princess!’”[10]

In an editorial piece for Lancaster Online, Gibble reiterated the concern of those parents who felt Stenzel was far from the best choice that the district could have made for a speaker to promote healthy, fully informed sexuality: “This [discussion] should not be about ‘liberal vs. conservative,’ ‘for vs. against,’ ‘abstinence vs. Planned Parenthood.’ This is about providing students with the best education we can — not simply doing ‘whatever it takes to keep kids from having sex.’”[11]

 


[1] Kara Newhouse, “Warwick school board sticks to abstinence speaker plan amid criticism, praise,” Lancasteronline.com, November 21, 2014, accessed December 2, 2014 at http://lancasteronline.com/news/local/warwick-school-board-sticks-to-abstinence-speaker-plan-amid-criticism/article_87023ff2-5987-11e4-8265-0017a43b2370.html.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Editorial Board, “In our words: Warwick schools should have abstained from booking this abstinence speaker,” Lancasteronline.com, October 17, 2014, accessed December 2, 2014 at http://lancasteronline.com/opinion/editorials/warwick-schools-should-have-abstained-from-booking-this-abstinence-speaker/article_3b87aac8-564c-11e4-b80a-001a4bcf6878.html?TNNoMobile.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Warwick School District, “Update on Stenzel Presentation,” November 12, 2014, accessed December 2, 2014 at http://www.warwicksd.org/website/news.php?id=1955.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Karen Esbenshade, “Warwick parents played by agitators,” letter to the editor, Lancasteronline.com, November 19, 2014, accessed December 2, 2014 at http://lancasteronline.com/opinion/letters_to_editor/warwick-parents-played-by-agitators/article_c97b7d42-6e97-11e4-9669-0bb5fc18d738.html.

[9] Tom Knapp, “Abstinence message finds warm welcome in Warwick,” Lancasteronline.com, November 19, 2014, accessed December 2, 2014 at http://lancasteronline.com/news/local/abstinence-message-finds-warm-welcome-in-warwick/article_7eb87ba0-7038-11e4-978c-8329c0ba39d5.html.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Laura Gibble, “Fear tactics, distortions don’t work in sex ed,” Lancasteronline.com, November 3, 2014, accessed December 2, 2014 at http://lancasteronline.com/opinion/columnists/fear-tactics-distortions-don-t-work-in-sex-ed/article_9a7101ec-6362-11e4-a2f1-0017a43b2370.html

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